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Oxygen: The Molecule That Made the World

4.13  ·  Rating details ·  1,865 ratings  ·  97 reviews
In Oxygen, Nick Lane takes the reader on an enthralling journey as he unravels the unexpected ways in which oxygen spurred the evolution of life and death. He shows how oxygen underpins the origin of biological complexity, the birth of photosynthesis, the sudden evolution of animals, the need for two sexes, the accelerated aging of cloned animals like Dolly the sheep, and ...more
Paperback, 384 pages
Published March 26th 2004 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published September 26th 2002)
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4.13  · 
Rating details
 ·  1,865 ratings  ·  97 reviews

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Steve Van Slyke
Jan 16, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: kindle, science
I selected this book for two reasons. First, I was looking for something else to read by Nick Lane after reading Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life, and second, I'm fascinated by the story of how free oxygen arose in Earth's atmosphere.

One of the key points Lane makes about the world of science today is that it has become so fragmented and specialized that, for example, biologists often know little about geology, and vice versa for geologists. He hopes that science writers
Jun 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing
OK, I feel like my brain has been doing 300lb bench presses for the past 342 pages of this book. This 5 Star immersion into the scientific world demanded concentration but was well worth the time invested. This is popular science that challenges but entertains at the same time. See how he describes the magical chemistry of chlorophyll:

(view spoiler)
Sep 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Nick Lane is courageous enough to draw conclusions about the vital role of oxygen, both in the emergence of life and in aging. Many science writers duck this challenge, Lane does not and his book is the better for it. His affection for this element is marvelous; if asked to differentiate Star Trek from Star Wars it would not surprise readers of this book to hear that oxygen played a part!
"if water is the foundation of life, and oxygen is its engine. Without oxygen, life on earth would never hav
Leah Markum
There are two things to take into consideration when approaching this book: target audience and volume of quality content. In my case, one was a con and the other a potential pro.

The author claims this book is for the general public. No, it is not. Even people who love this book admit this is a hard read. An educational background in biochemistry with some understanding of geochemistry and genetics are a remarkable plus. Other than that you need a lot of patience. Despite my moderate knowledge
Nick Lane's exploration of the role of oxygen in the life of our planet is nothing if not comprehensive. It seems that he has left no stone unturned in his mission to tell the story of the remarkable way in which life harnessed oxygen, contained it, made use of it and out of this came more and more life. The extra-ordinary role of mitochondria in this epic story is also explored in meticulous detail.

At a certain point the focus shifts from life to senescence and asks is aging and death due to t
Nov 21, 2016 rated it it was ok
I’ve tried twice to read this in full, and found that though at the beginning it’s engaging and interesting, the sheer level of detail starts to wear on me. This time, I was well served by having the first year of a BSc behind me: it’s easier to understand what the by-products of photosynthesis are when you have a good grasp of how photosynthesis works, and why it generates highly reactive intermediates. Despite Lane’s aim at the general reader, then, perhaps it’s worth noting that at least some ...more
Chris Leuchtenburg
Nov 15, 2012 rated it did not like it
Shelves: science
Speculative hogwash. For a more civil assessment, see review in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine:

“He compounds his difficulties by including much speculative material. Lane clearly enjoys the counter-intuitive and the iconoclastic, but the reader must be given a sufficiently detailed conventional context in which the more controversial observations can be adequately appraised—particularly the general reader to whom this book is directed. The scope and diversity of the subject matter
Theresa Leone Davidson
This is my first book by Nick Lane, and I liked it. Obviously, it concerns oxygen and its effect on everything on earth, and how it started life as we know it on our planet. Lane combines engineering, organic and inorganic chemistry with evolutionary studies, paleontology, and research medicine, to explain the world. He also deals with the recent research on free radicals and their effect on health and on the phenomena of aging and of immortality. This is the part of the book I found most intere ...more
Oct 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biology, science
Author provides a great overview of research in various fields:
- biochemistry: enzymatic reactions, photosynthesis
- geology: chemical reactions in the presence of early Earth, sedimentations ...
- biomedical research: ageing, cancer, Alzheimer's ...
The breath of details sometimes is overwhelming. Author also tends to go to the speculative side of science ... While a large proportion of the book discusses well-grounded research, some of Nick Lane's big ideas don't have solid proof (yet).

It's a s
Bill Leach
Oct 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing

Origins of Oxygen
- earth's early atmosphere seems to have been mostly nitrogen from volcanic action
- oxygen was initially formed by the breakdown of water by UV rays; however much of this reacted with iron, locking it up, while the hydrogen escaped earth
- over billions of years, this process cost Mars and Venus their atmospheres
- photosynthesis produced oxygen in sufficient quantity that it overwhelmed the iron, allowing oxygen to accumulate
- the oxygen also reacted with the free hydrogen, prese
Derek Bridge
Jul 29, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is something of a tour de force. It synthesizes many areas of science to describe the role of oxygen in the history of our planet, life on the planet and ageing and age-related diseases. Indeed, the latter comes as something of a surprise, since Lane seems to synthesize a new theory of ageing and age-related diseases, which you wouldn't expect in a popular science book.

However, it's not quite a popular science book. It has not just scope but also a depth (especially in the chemistry) hat wa
Steve Jones
Jan 24, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This is the best popular science book that I have read in years. The first half covers the role of oxygen in the evolution of life, including how and when the oxygen content of the atmosphere evolved from virtually zero concentration to the present 21% by volume. The most fascinating part of this account is the resolution of the apparent paradox of how life on Earth coped with photosynthetic cyanobacteria "inventing" a form of chlorophyll which created a toxic waste product : Oxygen. The resolut ...more
Jose Moa
Dec 07, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, biology
Oxigen is one of the most corrosive gases,but oddily life have adapted to live with it and obtain a lot of energy.Nick Lane in his book explains as the appareance of the oxigen in the atmosphere,due to the photosyntesis give way to a cataclism in the life known as the oxigen revolution where the survivor life adapted to live with it.The euchariotic cells thanks to the mitochondrias ancient symbiotic bacterias now transformed in tiny power stations where the oxigen is consumed by mean of respirat ...more
Apr 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing
A very well-written book. The author puts forth some very interesting ideas about how oxygen and oxidation underlie many biological functions and problems.

I'm not really qualified to really make a judgement call on whether he is right on all points, but I find the arguments both plausible and convincing. Especially since he manages to link it all to the history of life on Earth and the evolution of all domains of life. He also neatly kicks out a number of currently-dominant theories, such as th
Jan 22, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biology, chemistry
This was a wonderful book. Written to be accessible to interested and educated laymen, Oxygen: The Molecule that Made the World brilliantly illuminates the vital role oxygen has played, both directly and otherwise, in shaping both this planet and the life that inhabits it. The genetic traits shared by all terrestrial life; the Earth's ability to retain water, rather than suffer the eventual planetary evaporation such as happened on Mars; the probable reason for both why the dinosaurs could grow ...more
Michael Alexander Henke
Apr 06, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: science
I think this book required much more effort than I was willing, or able to give it. That being said, the topic was fascinating and the information I could glean from it was really eye opening. The thing is that this book is very heavy in many different disciplines of science. You will read about geology, paleontology, genetics, chemistry, organic chemistry, molecular biology, cell biology, and more. This isn't a book you just sit down to read for entertainment, to get the most out of it, it real ...more
Sheng Peng
Feb 22, 2016 rated it liked it
I learned that the hype about antioxidant pretty much died out in the 70s in the medical community. And I learned that vegetables and fruits are good for you but nobody is sure why they are. And I also learned that birds live really long.

Overall, interesting book. Writing is mediocre, as most of the analogies are lame and muddling rather than elucidating and after the barrage of factoids the enlightenment never come.
Christopher Zeeb
Aug 04, 2011 rated it liked it
The book was very slow going in the beginning with the history of how oxygen appeared on Earth. Kinda redundant and technical. Thesecond half of the book was much better. It discussed how free radicals affect our health and aging and the role of mitochondria in the production of free radicals. It also discussed how antioxidants work and how effective they are in combatting free radicals. I found this to be very interesting and easier to follow.
Oct 25, 2009 rated it it was amazing
An interesting look at the molecule oxygen and its impact on human life and evolution. I found the theory of fecundity versus longevity particularly compeling. One almost wants to reread this book several times to absorb all of Lane's theories. This may be a good idea in a society that is obsessed with antioxidants and generally clueless as to their actual function.
Jonas Gehrlein
Dec 19, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biology
The book gives a complete overview over oxygen`s effect on life though the book you can see which experiments that lead to Lane`s conclusions.
His points at the end on oxygen effect on aging and the workings of Alzheimers and cancer are wellformed and worth reading.
David Chen
Apr 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Took some time and some on and off reading, but very excellent book. Nick Lane provides an excellent background and overview of just how important and integral oxygen has been to the proliferation of life on Earth as well as its continued integral role in life and death.

Starting out from primordial origins, he describes the evolution of life as it had to deal with free oxygen radicals formed by ultraviolet splitting of the sun, transitions to the development of photosynthetic organisms and the s
Mar 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Oxygen giveth life, and it taketh away.

This is a fascinating book looking at the role oxygen has played from some 3.5 billion years ago to how it affects our biology today. Where did oxygen come from? How did it lead to the development of complex life on Earth? These are two fascinating questions eloquently answered in this book. How does oxidative stress and free radicals affect us today? Antioxidants might not be the miracle cure many have been led to believe. How does all this link to ageing
Esmeralda Rupp-Spangle
I don't think such a short book has ever taken me so long to read. This is not a bad thing, in fact- it's because I was so fascinated by the subject matter that I would read and re-read entire chapters so that I could competently grasp the chemistry and biology involved. I found this to be enormously engaging and educational, and I am looking forward to reading more from this author.
David Arch
Dec 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
Fascinating read....Lanes argument that one must look through the prism of evolution to understand our biochemistry is illuminating. The role of oxidative stress in life cycles is a revelation. The informational density of this book, at least for me, require multiple readings
Avi Eisenman
Nov 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
I can't say I understood 100% of the science in this book, but the parts I did understand were intriguing enough to keep reading. A fascinating deep-dive into the origins of Oxygen, its influence on our world, as we know it, and how it holds the keys to life, aging, death, and more.
This book tied together geology, biogeochemistry, cell biology and medicine. I learned much from my unfamiliar areas and made many great connections to pull into my lectures and understanding. Occasionally overstated, but well-written popular science.
James Moritz
Feb 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Challenging for the layperson, like all of Nick’s books, but fantastic backstory if you have any interest in the history of life and the planet.
Mohan Rao
Jan 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
From evolution to its good and bad effects
Sep 29, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Loved this one! So much insight and new perspective on a molecule we ultimately depend on for all aspects of our existence
Steve Lawless
Jan 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science
Brilliant. Densley packed with fascinating info.
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Dr Nick Lane is a British biochemist and writer. He was awarded the first Provost's Venture Research Prize in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London, where he is now a Reader in Evolutionary Biochemistry. Dr Lane’s research deals with evolutionary biochemistry and bioenergetics, focusing on the origin of life and the evolution of complex cells. Dr Lane w ...more
“Our bodies are historical accidents of evolution and ultimately can only be understood from an evolutionary perspective: how things got to be the way they are. From this point of view, a good guys-bad guys philosophy is a woefully inadequate way of thinking about molecules as complex as NFΚB. Even so, this is the norm. NFΚB is usually portrayed as Janus-faced, capable of abrupt swings from the good to the bad and the ugly. Sometimes it destroys neurons, sometimes it protects them. It is important, but profoundly unreliable as a drug target.” 1 likes
“When a molecule of vitamin C encounters a free radical, it becomes oxidised and thereby renders the free radical innocuous. The oxidised vitamin C then gets restored to its non-oxidised state by an enzyme called vitamin C reductase. It is like a boxer who goes into the ring, takes a hit to his jaw, goes to his corner to recover, and then does it all over again.” 1 likes
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